12 January 1997
By Kalinga Seneviratne
(This article has been extracted from the January 1997 issue of Men’s Review in Malaysia)
A beautiful country with friendly people: In Sydney, where I live, I tell an Australian friend that I am planning a holiday to Iran. They say, “what? a holiday to Iran of all places? Good luck to you mate.”
A few weeks later, my wife Priyani and I are at Tehran’s southern bus terminal, trying to catch a bus to Rasht, on the Caspian coast, a good four to five hours drive north of the Iranian capital. The signs are all in Persian including the numbers (using their own numerals). While most commuters in this busy, somewhat chaotic bus terminal cannot speak English, we somehow manage to find our way to a bus heading to Rasht.
There were lots of women in black chadors and men in black beards – typical TV images we are familiar with, but their attitude towards us throughout our 10-day visit didn’t reflect the negative reports the western media paints of the country and its people, Iran, in fact, is rolling out welcome mats for foreign travellers in a bid to put the country back on the international tourist map and change the mainly western perceptions of it being a ‘terrorist state’ since the Islamic Revolution.
While northern Iran on the Caspian coast is dotted with Asian-style paddy fields – even tea estates – and picturesque rugged mountain terrain, and the island of Kish on the Persian Gulf, Iran’s tourism drive depends very much on historic cities like Isfahan.
This 900-year-old city, about 350km south of Tehran, is set to play a leading role in the revival of Iran’s tourism. Maidan-e-Imam is a huge open square surrounded by two mosques, a royal pavilion and bazaars, and is twice as big as Moscow’s Red Square.
The majestic Imam Mosque, which borders the square’s northern end is a stunning example of Iran’s Islamic architecture. The building dates back to 1612. The Ali Qapu Palace, which flanks the western side of the square is about seven storeys high and an interesting example of a Persian royal pavilion, with its musical rooms, decorative frescos and different reception rooms.
Underground markets (left) and Priyani and I enjoying an Iranian ice cream with my Iranian-Australian Friend Mahamoud’s sister
The undercover bazaars are another unique experience. People here boast that you won’t find anything like this anywhere else in the world. Once you’ve had the experience of walking along some four kilometres of footpath within, one is inclined to agree.
All tourists are expected to respect the country’s Islamic culture and traditions, which means that all women tourists – no matter where they come from – will have to wear a scarf and a long dress in public at all times. However, while many tourists, including European women, wear the chador, it is not necessary, as long as you have your arms and legs well covered.
Making Friends with the locals (above) and an Iranian dinner at Mahmoud’s sister’s home
The 325km drive north of Rasht virtually takes you to the rice-growing countryside of Malaysia or Thailand. You feel you are in Southeast Asia, rather than on the Caspian coast almost on the borders of Europe. They even grow tea just outside Rasht, which reminds me of Sri Lanka. But, unlike in Sri Lanka where tea is grown on the mountain slopes, the Iranian tea estates are mainly on level ground.
Paddy Field (left) and Tea Plantation (right)
Rasht is a popular weekend destination for Tehranis. Most of the area is covered with lush vegetation – which is not exactly the Middle East one expects to see – and traditional villages and settlements.
A popular tourist attraction is the village of Masuleh about 50km from Rasht, where pale cream houses with grey slate roofs are perched on a steep slope. Every level of the houses are so built that the roof of one level forms the path to the next. It is a unique place worth a visit.
A drive east of Rasht towards Chalus takes you to another world – along the Caspian sea dotted with beach cottages and resorts. The road from Chalus to Tehran must rank as one of the most scenic drives anywhere in the world. The rugged mountain slopes and passes, fast-flowing streams and snow-capped mountain peaks, even in the summer.
So Iran is worth a visit and their people are extremely friendly.